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Balancing Act 

I live in the French Quarter. That may be the crux of the problem, particularly if the ghost tours that are now so popular have any basis in reality. Perhaps the phantoms of long-dead Creoles gradually possess the occupants of their former abodes. We know those Creoles had no use for "Kaintucks," the roughhewn English-speaking settlers of America.

I suppose you might call this the Creole Defense. And I am invoking it to seek acquittal from the charge of prejudice toward The Robber Bridegroom, currently on the boards at Rivertown Rep.

The fact is I don't need to witness a great many square dances in the course of a year to feel relatively content with my lot. Nor do I often hear "a tall tale" that I try to commit to memory so I can trot it out in the lull of conversation over dinner. And The Robber Bridegroom is a bona fide "Kaintuck" tall tale, with a musical score that's heavy on square dances.

I'm not totally allergic to Americana. For instance, The Roadside Theater, a contemporary Appalachian troupe, has delighted me many times over the years. But with The Robber Bridegroom -- despite some vibrant performances, full-throated tunes and a buoyant ensemble effort -- I couldn't quite get with the program. The folksy plot may not really be the stumbling block -- though I was decisively underwhelmed by the script. The difficulty resides in that seemingly innocuous phrase "tongue-in-cheek," a style that's easy to do, but maddeningly difficult to do well. What's a tongue-in-cheek stripper like? She wears a huge blond wig, chews gum like a cow, talks in a squeaky voice with a broad accent and ... oh sorry, I drifted off to sleep -- is it intermission yet?

How do you do "tongue-in-cheek" in an interesting way? There's not a simple answer, of course. Clearly, all involved must somehow create a subtle, fluid comic mood that allows the characters to both stay in the play and comment on themselves.

To strike that sort of balance with The Robber Bridegroom is a formidable challenge. In the backwater settlement of Rodney, Miss., sometime in the last century, we meet Clement Musgrove, a wealthy planter just returning from a business trip to New Orleans. He is set upon by two scoundrels, a thief named Little Harp, who travels with his brother's severed head (which he keeps in a large steamer trunk; the other is a dapper con artist named Jamie Lockhart. All three men have apparently rented the same bed in a tawdry inn. To save the planter's life, Lockhart sneaks him into the closet and puts some sheaves of sugar cane under the blankets in his place. Little Harp bludgeons the sugar cane, assumes he's murdered both his bedmates, then panics when they reappear as "ghosts."

The planter's second wife, Salome, is ugly as sin (not really, but she makes faces that are supposed to look ugly). She's also over-sexed. To make matters worse, the planter's daughter Rosamund (by his first marriage) is a pulchritudinous young thing, so Salome hires the town simpleton to kill her.

Meanwhile, Lockhart has a secret identity, The Forest Bandit. He happens upon Rosamund in the woods. They fall in love. Then, Lockhart arrives at the planter's house to court the very same daughter. Rosamund does not recognize Lockhart (he wears smudges of berry juice on his face as the bandit). More remarkably, he doesn't recognize her, either. And so on and so forth. It's hard to believe the book was adapted by Alfred Uhry from a Eudora Welty novella (Uhry wrote Driving Miss Daisy).

Chris Stelz's staging, in which the actors are used for doors and trees, often has an inventive charm. Joanne Mehrtens (Salome), Gary Rucker (Little Harp) and Kalon Thibideaux (the simpleton) have fine comic moments. Rucker and Thibideaux, for instance, do an exuberant duet that stops the show. Chrissy Garrett (Rosamund) sings well and gives her ingenue a piquant dollop of lust. Carlin Benz does yeoman service as the two-faced Lockhart.

The 32 countrified tunes are upbeat and well performed, and choreographer Lynne Lawerence churns up a good deal of bucolic merriment. Of course, dear reader, it's possible you are more fortunate than I, and your soul has escaped the corrupting influence of our Creole ancestors. In that case, you might want to do-si-do on down to Rivertown and give it a try.

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